BALIBO – Freedom and the Press
Balibo Film Review – originally published in X-Press Magazine.
Directed by Robert Connolly
Starring Anthony LaPaglia, Oscar Isaac, Damon Gameau, Gyton Grantley, Nathan Phillips, Thomas Wright, Mark Leonard Winter.
The year is 1975, and rumours of a pending invasion of East Timor by Indonesia have begun to gain a small amount of attention in Australia. Just as the ABC TV news team is preparing to leave, declaring the situation too dangerous, two rival news crews from commercial stations arrive and are directed by the Timorese to Balibo, situated against the Timor-Indonesia border.
Days later, the five members of these rival crews are declared dead. The Indonesian Government reports that the men were killed in crossfire. The Australian Government accepts this story and does not intervene when Indonesian forces invade and occupy East Timor.
More than thirty years later, using a range of sources including the testimony of thousands of Timorese interviewed for the Timor-Leste Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation, the 2008 Glebe Coronial Inquest into the death of the five men and the reclaimed diary of one of the journalists, director Robert Connolly has attempted to recreate the final days of the men who would become known as the Balibo Five.
Cinematically, Connolly has worked his way into Balibo with the story of veteran Australian journalist Roger East –powerfully portrayed by Anthony LaPaglia – an aging foreign correspondent who seems resigned to putting his best work behind him and hacking away at his career in Darwin, until he is approached by a young José Ramos-Horta (Oscar Isaac) and invited to take up a position as head of the East Timor News Agency.
Although East is unenthusiastic about taking the job, Horta seals the deal by promising him unrestricted access to the full story of the Balibo Five, who had been declared dead just weeks before. The two men travel to Dili, and the film Balibo begins.
There is an inherent danger in the cinematic retelling of any ‘true story’, and this danger is always magnified when the story is one that is intended to expose a conspiracy or collusion between governments to keep the public from discovering the truth. On the one hand, the medium demands tension and drama, and on the other, the film-maker has an obligation not to overtly heighten or exaggerate events; the events can’t be changed to serve the story if the purpose of the story is to tell the events.
Connolly has already proven himself to be a masterful suspense/thriller director with his first feature The Bank (also featuring Anthony LaPaglia), which he followed up with the intensely character-driven drama Three Dollars (both starring David Wenham).
Although he is keenly aware of the balancing act required of any cinematic true story, the decision to structure the film through East’s investigation, intercut with dramatisations of the journey and ultimate deaths of the Balibo Five, has provided a classic suspense/thriller of a story.
In terms of characterisation, the relationship between the young Horta and veteran East carries most of the film’s weight, while the arc of the Balibo Five is clearly tragic, transforming from friendly, almost naive rivalry to a true understanding of the situation that they’re in – and more importantly, what it means to the East Timorese people that they’ve come to document.
Balibo is an unapologetically political film that demands the viewer’s attention and involvement – while it purports to tell the truth of actual events, it raises many other questions, such as the involvement of the media in foreign affairs, our complacency as a nation to take a stand in foreign affairs (unless guided by bigger Western nations), and the biggest question of all – why has it taken so long for this story to be told?
Is it a true story? Well, there’s a lot of evidence that supports Connolly’s claim. Is it a good film? No… It’s a great film – possibly one of the great Australian films, in the tradition of (and ranking alongside) Breaker Morant.